February 2015
Farm & Field

A Solar Solution

  A solar-powered pump and storage tanks solved Joy Reznicek’s problem of finding an alternative water source for a large pasture on her cattle ranch.

A watering system powered by solar panels ensures water for the future on Cow Creek Ranch.

Pickens County landowner Joy Reznicek owns the 2,400 acre Cow Creek Ranch in Aliceville. When she began having water quantity problems on the ranch, she started looking for a long-term solution for an alternative water source.

"Water is an important resource in a cattle operation," she said. "If you don’t have fresh water, you can’t have cattle."

The ranch has seven artesian wells which are primary water sources for cattle grazing in her pastures. In 2012, one of the artesian wells stopped flowing.

"It was the first time in the history of our ownership of the ranch (1994) that this happened," Reznicek said.

They had to vacate the pastures on that portion of the ranch because there was no other access to safe drinking water.

"I knew we were going to have to address this problem," she said.

Solar panels power a pump to fill a 6,000-gallon water tank and three 500-gallon troughs with clean water for grazing cattle.  

In the summer of 2012, Reznicek visited livestock customers in Florida and noticed they had a solar panel and a well in their pasture. After looking at it closely and making photos to take back home, she felt she had found the answer to her water woes. The Florida landowner indicated they had received financial assistance through the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program to install the system. She reasoned, if they had it available as a practice in Florida, maybe she could get it in Alabama.

When Reznicek returned home, she called the Pickens County NRCS District Conservationist Terry Williamson and asked about a practice for a solar-powered water system. Williamson was honest and said that as far as he knew there was none on the Alabama EQIP practice list.

Not wanting to let his customer down, after he found it was on the Florida NRCS EQIP practice list, he said, "Let me do some research."

Alabama NRCS had always provided financial assistance through EQIP for wells and watering facilities, but had not offered anything for a solar-powered system. This situation initiated some conversation between the NRCS program staff. It was realized that the practice could be made available to Alabama landowners because it was considered an energy conservation project.

Williamson called Reznicek and said, "I think we are going to be able to get this done."

After the practice was approved for Alabama, meetings were held between Reznicek, Williamson, the technical staff and NRCS engineers to design the practice to meet the needs of the Cow Creek Ranch. NRCS West Team engineers Erika Justiniano-Valez and Randall East were charged with designing the project.

Justiniano-Valez said that the project was new to Alabama NRCS and required a lot of research. The design consisted of matching the site-specific data and requirements such as livestock water needs, well depth, topography and available sun energy to the commonly available solar devices. Justiniano-Valez and East indicated that communication between all parties was key to the success of the project.

Having the local DC on the job daily to check progress was also important. He was able to facilitate small changes in a timely manner to keep the process moving smoothly.

Other team members critical to the success of the project were Assistant State Conservation Engineer Bill Smith and retired Civil Engineer Mac Nelson. They added a routine to an existing spreadsheet program to design the solar components of the watering system. Inputs to the program include available solar energy (based on latitude and time of year); pumping rate requirements (based on number of livestock, well depth and hours of sunshine per day); and water storage requirements (based on projected water needs during cloudy days when solar energy is insufficient to power the pump). The primary outputs of the program are the pump horsepower requirements, number and size of solar panels, and storage tank volume. The storage tank was sized to provide a three-day supply of water to carry the livestock through times when there is not enough sunshine.

The Alabama design had to meet national NRCS standards and specifications as well as the landowner’s needs and expectations.

After the design was approved and the construction contracts were secured, the solar energy system and a water storage tank were installed on the Cow Creek property as a backup for the intermittent artesian well. Three 500-gallon troughs were strategically placed so the well could service about 100+ acres of pastureland. A 6,000-gallon storage tank provides water when weather conditions do not allow enough energy to power the pump.

"Although the well provides necessary water for our pastures, it is bigger than that," Reznicek said. "It gives us opportunities for cross fencing, rotational grazing and extending water to pastures that do not have enough now. It also allows us to consider other pastures that may have potential problems down the road."

Reznicek indicated that she does not expect the water situation to improve over time. The artesian wells located in other remote areas on her farm without access to electricity could also fail.

"I am thinking about the future of our water supply," she added. "As I look around our rural landscape, I see much irrigation on the ground that is bringing the water table down. We have ample rainfall, but there was also ample rainfall when the artesian well stopped flowing. I knew we had to find a long-term solution to the problem."

She said the loss of one artesian well did not break the farm, but it would be an ongoing issue and, maybe down the road, she would have to look at other locations to place solar panels and wells.

Reznicek commented about how Williamson went out of his way to meet her needs, to get everybody on board, and to get everything scheduled. He seems to like these out-of-the-box challenges.

"This is a great pilot project and a solar-powered well is something that will serve a lot of farmers across Alabama very well," Williamson explained.

Reznicek appreciates the help she received from Williamson and the NRCS staff.

"We are lucky to have someone to take an idea we present and expand it, not just on a county level, but also to a state level," she said. "NRCS is always great to work with and they are always willing to push the envelope as far as they can. We appreciate that very much.

"At this moment the well is but a small blip on the radar in relation to the whole ranch. It is a vital piece of the puzzle in making the ranch successful. The solar well has made our whole ranch so much more productive to raise cattle."

According to East, this is the first time a solar well with storage tank has been installed in Alabama using NRCS financial assistance. He and Justiniano-Valez enjoyed being involved in this new and unique project. He indicated the revamped spreadsheet will make it easy to manage and plan other solar-well projects in the future.

Justiniano-Valez was impressed with the landowner’s interest in conservation and her wanting to do things right. She felt that Reznicek’s partnership with NRCS and her willingness to be a pilot project helped make this first solar-well system a success.

Fay Garner is a public affairs specialist with NRCS in Auburn, Ala.